Politically Correct in the Arctic

(by Charles Churchyard, author of National Lies)

Arctic exploration—what pleasure this subject has given to numerous readers! What a relief to turn aside from the concerns of the present and escape into the narrative of some traveler from the past—to experience with him a reality that is both immediately understandable and exotically interesting—to exchange, if only for an hour or two, the perplexing issues and intractable problems of today’s world for freezing temperatures, dwindling supplies, and unknown geography.

But not anymore. Recent years have seen the appearance and rapid spread of a tendency of mind and emotion called “political correctness.” To be politically correct one must recognize and deplore the arrogant despotism that white males of Western civilization have imposed upon the rest of mankind. The presumptions of superiority that underlie this domination can be found everywhere—from Shakespeare’s Tempest (Caliban as the subjugated native) to children’s stories, such as Babar the Elephant.[ 1 ] Like Frankenstein, who, in Mary Shelley’s original novel, pursued his monster through the frozen wastes of the polar region, the politically correct have carried their search for “racism,” “ethnocentrism,” and “Eurocentrism” even into the Arctic.

At first glance, this might appear to be unpromising ground from which to extract moral lessons for the late Twentieth and early Twenty-first Century. But the perceptions of the politically correct are as acute as their imaginations are fertile. Having the sensibility of practiced inquisitors, they can sniff out the faintest trace of heresy or sin, so that even in the Arctic they have not been disappointed. They found what they were looking for in the expeditions that the British Navy conducted during the Nineteenth Century.

Since its inception, this era in the history of Arctic exploration enjoyed special popularity and attention. People in Great Britain, her colonies, and her ex-colonies (including the United States) regarded polar travel before the advent of airplanes and radio communication as a heroic enterprise that approached military combat in the virtues it demanded of its participants. The officers and men who entered the ice had to display bravery and discipline in the face of genuine hardships and dangers. Since the Pax Britannica had largely put an end to naval warfare, some persons applauded Arctic service as a substitute for the experience of combat at sea or, in their words, as a school for future Nelsons.

The Franklin Expedition of 1845-1848, which had ended in the death of all of its 129 participants, received special praise. It was probably not the first time in the course of British history, and certainly not the last, that the reality of failure was transmuted into the image of heroism. John Franklin and his men were celebrated as exemplary members of the armed forces, who had done their duty no matter what the personal cost. Upon such virtues the British Empire had been built and maintained, it was said.

But the world has changed since then. During the Twentieth Century, the British Empire dwindled to a minute fraction of its former size, and along with its decline, an alteration took place in how it was perceived. Back in the 1950s, the British felt ashamed to have lost an empire. Now, half a century later, they—or at least many of them who are prominently articulate (facetiously know as “the chattering classes”)—feel ashamed ever to have had one.

Among those who have suffered from this change in the climate of opinion are Franklin and the other Arctic commanders of the Royal Navy. One early, notable voice of detraction was that of the explorer and author Vilhjalmur Stefansson. In his book Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic, published in 1939, he declared that the Franklin Expedition and other polar operations conducted by the Navy were examples, not of heroism, but of stupidity, and he argued that the attitudes and practices of the British explorers had doomed them to failure.

This was a novel and a controversial interpretation at the time that Stefansson proposed it, but as the apologists of the British Empire have declined in number and conviction, while the multitude of detractors has increased and intensified in emotional fervor, it has grown in popularity to the point where it is now a comfortable orthodoxy. In the present climate of political correctness, its charges are accepted as if they were proven facts and repeated with indignant rancor, as the following instances will illustrate.

While Roland Huntford was in the process of brutally if justly stripping the laurels from Scott of the Antarctic, he aimed some derogatory remarks at British polar exploration in general and at the Franklin Expedition in particular.[ 2 ] George Woodcock vented similar spleen in a journal of popular history.[ 3 ] But the most elaborate and forceful expression of political correctness in the Arctic is, beyond any doubt, Pierre Berton’s Arctic Grail. Throughout the course of this long account of “the quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909,” the author behaves like a prosecuting attorney with the officers of the British Navy, and especially Franklin, in the docket. Again and again he repeats the accusations against them, accompanied by exclamations of righteous anger and disgust. It is symptomatic of the prevailing opinion of these times that not a voice has been raised in protest against Berton’s indictment. All the reviews of his book have accepted its case without a murmur of dissent and often with spirited approval.

— ♦ —

In these circumstances, I should like to say a few words in behalf of the defendants. First, however, it is necessary to review the charges against them. Beginning in 1818, the British Admiralty launched a sequence of Arctic expeditions that were planned and led by men whose training and experience as naval officers and whose prejudices and preconceptions as British gentlemen of the Nineteenth Century are alleged to have prevented them from functioning as effective explorers. Trained to military obedience, their rigid minds refused to deviate from the established practices of the service. They failed to listen to innovators either inside or outside their ranks. They ignored the techniques of hunting and traveling that enabled Eskimos and Indians to survive and even to flourish in a seemingly hostile environment.

Three attitudes in particular are said to have been responsible for their self-defeating behavior. First, they found it difficult if not impossible to recognize that the native people of the Arctic possessed knowledge and methods which they would have done well to imitate. Such an admission would have contradicted their presumption of cultural superiority and thus wounded their pride. How could citizens of the most advanced nation on earth have imagined that they had anything to learn from filthy, illiterate savages?

Second, even when they perceived that acquiring such skills as driving huskies and building igloos would assist them in the business of exploration, they hesitated to employ these new methods because they feared that seriously adopting a part of native culture would implicate them in its dark and primitive totality. They felt that they would thereby compromise their identity as civilized men and sink to the level of barbarians.

Third, the very ease with which the natives lived and traveled in the Arctic was itself a reason not to imitate them. Among the British explorers a certain mentality prevailed that regarded the manner of reaching a goal to be as important as the goal itself, if not more so. They believed they were supposed to endure hardships and encounter dangers. If they sought to avoid these challenges by adopting easy methods, they would lose the opportunity to display manly virtues. It was the world of the gentleman amateur, improvising on the spot and showing courage in taking risks, not the calculating professional who wanted to reach his objective in safety with the least effort possible.

Misguided by these attitudes and assumptions, the British officers failed to adapt themselves to the Arctic. Instead, they continued to sail about in their large and cumbersome vessels, consume their customary provisions, and behave as much as possible as if they were conducting an ordinary naval operation. The result was a sequence of expedition after expedition returning as partial or complete failures, until at last one expedition, John Franklin's, did not come back at all.

This indictment has an apparent cogency. At first glance, the efforts of the British Navy in the Arctic do appear perverse. From the early years of the Nineteenth Century onward, it was generally recognized that the most reliable way of exploring polar geography was, not to attempt to sail through it in ships, but to trace its coastlines on foot or in boats.[ 4 ] That was the strategy behind the overland expeditions of Franklin in 1819-1822 and 1825-1827 and the amphibious expeditions of George Lyon (1824) and George Back (1836-1837). Yet John Barrow, the chief promoter of Arctic exploration by the British Navy, regarded this kind of expedition as an adjunct to or an inferior substitute for an expedition by ship. One might feel like exclaiming with Richard King in his angry public letter to Barrow, “But what use have you made of the polar land journeys? You have invariably made use of them to stir up a polar sea expedition...”[ 5 ]

A similar perversity seems to characterize the failure of the British explorers to adopt the ways of the Eskimos. As their published narratives show, William Edward Parry and George Lyon were fascinated by Eskimo life, which they observed in close detail during their expedition of 1821-1823. They especially admired the skill with which the natives had adapted themselves to their frigid surroundings, and their admiration even reached the stage of imitation. Both Parry and Lyon, and James Clark Ross as well, became skilled drivers of dog sleds.[ 6 ] Yet this form of transportation played only a minor part or no part at all in future expeditions undertaken by the British Navy. Despite their obvious superiority, dogs no more replaced men hauling sleds than parties by land replaced those in ships.

— ♦ —

The solution to this entire enigma is actually quite simple. The primary goal of British Arctic exploration during the first half of the Nineteenth Century was not simply to examine an unknown region of the earth but to find a navigable passage through it. That could be achieved only by a full-sized ship, not by a party in boats or on foot, with or without dogs. Today we know that the configuration of land and the presence of pack ice made such a passage highly impractical for sailing ships and primitive steamers. But John Barrow and his contemporaries were unaware of this reality. While the more prudent among them assessed the dangers and obstructions of Arctic travel and concluded that the achievement of such a passage would probably not prove to be worth the effort, zealots like Barrow were captivated by its possibility. One may condemn him for persisting in a futile endeavor, but that is the wisdom of hindsight.

In the search for a Northwest Passage, the launching of expeditions by land or the adoption of native skills would have contributed little. A party might have acquired the traveling techniques of the Eskimos, then proceeded to trace the entire Arctic coastline of North America by sled or by boat, and at the end claimed to have discovered a Northwest Passage in that they had followed a course of water running from one ocean to the other. But this would not have been a passage for ships, since it was blocked by ice in various places, such as Fury and Hecla Strait. The meaning of a true Northwest Passage remained what it had been from the time of John Cabot (1450-1498) to that of John Barrow (1764-1848)—a passage made by a full-sized ship and nothing less.

The distinction between these two kinds of passage, one theoretical and one actual, has often escaped the perception of today’s writers on Arctic history. During the Nineteenth Century, while the search for both was going on, the difference between the two was widely recognized, as well as the superior importance and prestige of the one over the other. Even Richard King, who advocated expeditions by land, did not call for an end to expeditions by sea. On the contrary, his position was that a land party should travel in advance of ships and determine the best route for them to take.[ 7 ]

Once the search for Franklin began in 1848, the goal of British Arctic expeditions changed. They were no longer looking for a passage but were trying to find and rescue a missing party. The means they employed were ships and sleds hauled by men. Dog teams would not have helped because the search parties had to carry large quantities of food for the relief of Franklin’s crews. Learning to drive Eskimo dogs is a long and difficult process. Obtaining and maintaining a sufficient number of them for such an extensive operation would have been enormously difficult if not impossible. The Navy understandably chose to use ships and men. There is a great difference between its refusal to adopt Eskimo techniques in this instance and Robert Falcon Scott’s similar decision in other circumstances. A paper by C. S. Mackinnon illuminates the distinction, and it should be read by anyone who would condemn every Arctic expedition that failed to go native.[ 8 ]

The British Navy did the best that could have been expected of it under the historical and geographical circumstances. Its objectives (the achievement of a genuine Northwest Passage and the rescue of Franklin's expedition) were reasonable in light of the knowledge it possessed, and the means it employed were appropriate for its objectives. But these facts alone are probably not enough to satisfy the politically correct. They would no doubt insist on a closer examination of that controversial and emotionally charged subject, the relationship between European explorers and indigenous peoples.

— ♦ —

It is true that most, if not virtually all, of the British officers and men shared the popular assumption of the Victorian Age that Western society was superior to every other society in the rest of the world. Narratives of Arctic travel occasionally record highly contemptuous remarks about the natives. Even those explorers who observed Indian or Eskimo culture with a sympathetic eye could not help betraying a subtle but fundamental condescension, which proceeded from the implicit conviction that they were dealing with members of a civilization inferior to their own.

Anyone who is familiar with the politically correct mind can predict how it will react to such tendencies. It will snap shut with the automatic motion of a steel trap whose sensitive trigger has been touched. The British explorers are damned—utterly and irrevocably. They committed mortal sins that nothing can redress. They were Eurocentric, ethnocentric, and racist.

One may confront this reaction in two ways, from a broad or from a narrow perspective. If I were to choose the former, I would begin by defending the attitudes of the British explorers. I would argue that Western culture is in fact a more complex and a more advanced culture than Eskimo or Indian culture. Then I would go on the offensive and proceed to examine the mentality of the politically correct. First, I would note that they judge a Westerner who considers himself superior to non-Westerners as guilty of the blackest iniquity, but when a non-Westerner considers himself superior to Westerners, they view that as a laudable instance of native pride. I would then proceed to observe that this is only a single instance of a general tendency among the politically correct. They are eager to perceive and denounce the faults of their own society, but they ignore faults, even the very same faults, in other societies. Finally, I would inquire as to why they nurture such a virulent hatred for what is, in fact, their own—a hatred that is all the more pernicious because it operates under such disguises as compassion, selflessness, and moral elevation.[ 9 ]

Such a course of argument would require a lengthy exposition that would go far afield from the subject at hand, which is the history of Arctic exploration. Consequently, I shall confine myself to a narrower perspective and put forward the following proposition. Even if the British explorers could be considered Eurocentric, ethnocentric, and racist by the current standards of political correctness, this bias did not significantly affect their behavior as explorers. I have previously mentioned three specific attitudes which they are said to have possessed and which are supposed to have been detrimental to their effectiveness in the Arctic. I shall now proceed to examine each of the three, and I shall demonstrate that neither logic nor evidence supports the significance that has been attributed to them.

— ♦ —

(1.) It is wrong to regard the British explorers as being so convinced of their own superiority that they could not conceive of the natives as having anything to teach them. The first prolonged contact with Eskimos (Parry's expedition of 1821-1823) resulted in officers learning how to drive dogs and employing them on actual sled journeys, as I have mentioned above. Subsequent naval expeditions failed to utilize this means of travel because their objective was a Northwest Passage, which could be attained only by ship, not by sled or on foot.

Arctic explorers from the Hudson's Bay Company did not have the use of ships and therefore could not possibly achieve an actual Northwest Passage. Since their only hope was to trace a theoretical passage along the northern coast of North America, they were quick to recognize the advantage of native ways and to adopt them as the best means for traveling quickly and efficiently. This was true of both Thomas Simpson and John Rae, the two men who led Hudson's Bay Company expeditions in search of a Northwest Passage. Leopold McClintock provides a similar case. His objective on his expedition of 1857-1859 was to examine as much of the territory around King William Island as possible in a search for the remains of John Franklin and his men. When McClintock traveled by sled, he therefore utilized Eskimo dogs, built igloos, and ate blubber.

The determining factor for adopting or not adopting the techniques of Indians and Eskimos was the objective of the explorer, not the fact that he was (like McClintock) or was not (like Simpson and Rae) a naval officer. Contempt for the natives was not confined to the ranks of the Royal Navy. Thomas Simpson behaved in a flagrantly arrogant and overbearing manner that may have finally cost him his life. In one of his letters, he expressed himself in the following terms about a tribe of Eskimos he happened to encounter:

The women danced around us, and were indefatigable in their blandishments. They are whores without exception. The men are a set of lousy, good-humored, thievish, pimping rogues. Without firearms I should be sorry to trust to their tender mercies, notwithstanding their smiling physiogs.[ 10 ]

Such a mentality was about as far from politically correct as it is possible to get. Yet Simpson’s highly developed sense of personal or cultural superiority did not prevent him from joining a band of Indians and learning from them how to hunt caribou. In fact, he has the distinction of being the first British Arctic explorer to adopt native ways and use them as an essential part of his repertoire of survival skills.

(2.) It is wrong to imagine British explorers as being fearful of imitating the natives because they felt they would thereby transgress the line that separated the civilized world from the realm of savagery. This sounds like a notion that might have sprung up among the settled English population in India or some other corner of the Empire where a community of whites could view itself as an outpost of civilization in a land of heathens. The circumstances in which an Arctic explorer found himself were far too transient and precarious to permit the nurturing of so fastidious a discrimination. I have found no trace of it in any of the writings of actual explorers, and that is not surprising. Can anyone seriously entertain the idea that Thomas Simpson thought he had tainted himself with barbarism by joining an Indian hunting party or that Leopold McClintock believed he had sunk to the level of an Eskimo by eating blubber?

Since we are dealing with the putative mentality of Victorian Englishmen abroad, it is only fair to consider another attitude, which had a tendency precisely opposite to the one I have been considering. According to this stereotype, the British gentleman was so convinced of his superiority that he was ready to imitate the ways of the natives, to compete with them on their own turf, and to equal or even outdo them in their own enterprises. Such a stance was an established convention in popular fiction that dealt with imperial themes and circumstances.[ 11 ] One may wonder how often it existed in reality, but at least it fits the actual behavior of Arctic explorers far better than the contrary idea of timorous persons fearing that they might degrade themselves by association with a primitive culture.

(3.) It is wrong to think of the British explorers as victims of a Victorian attitude that regarded the means by which one attained an end as more important than the end itself. According to this ethos, an explorer was supposed to demonstrate bravery, coolness, character, and proper gentlemanly form in encountering dangers and enduring hardships. If he sought to avoid these perils by employing the easiest and safest means of reaching his objective, he was not playing the game as it was supposed to be played.

Sentiments such as these did exist in late nineteenth-century England, but one may doubt how much they influenced the actual behavior of explorers, leaving aside the unfortunate Scott in the Antarctic. They sound more like opinions from armchair travelers or oratory to arouse moral support and monetary contributions from the public, than precepts that guided anyone's conduct in a desolate wilderness. Besides, they did not come into vogue until a later era, well after the Royal Navy had withdrawn from the field of Arctic exploration. Having built an empire, the British feared that they might be resting on their laurels. The defeats they had suffered in the Boer War (1899-1901) suggested that they had lost the strength and stamina of previous generations. Decadence was a word often repeated during those years. And it was no time for weakness, with the growing threat of Germany as an international rival. To a nation in these circumstance, the idea of men deliberately seeking trials in harsh environments to test and toughen themselves had an immediate, practical appeal.

This was not the mood and mentality of the public during the earlier years of the Nineteenth Century, when the British Empire was still expanding.[ 12 ] Arctic exploration might at times be justified and applauded as preparing men for the hardships and dangers of war, but such a sentiment never attained primary importance. It was always an incidental benefit, secondary and subordinate to the stated goals of each particular expedition, which sought to attain a genuine Northwest Passage or to aid fellow explorers in distress.

— ♦ —

The obvious and straightforward conclusion is that British explorers declined to adopt native ways because these would not have enabled them to attain their stated objectives. It seems ridiculously contrived and utterly unconvincing to disregard their sound and logical reasoning and to maintain instead that they acted as they did because they were led astray by attitudes such as the three I have just discussed. Persons who propose these motives as serious explanations of behavior in the Arctic are being influenced something other than historical evidence or a disinterested desire to understand the past.

The prevailing climate of political correctness is to blame. It automatically deplores and reviles anything that was part of the British Empire, and it does so with a virulence that will not tolerate dissent. In the face of such hostility, the easiest course of action is to give way before it. Like most everyone else, writers of Arctic history have perceived the direction in which the winds of opinion are blowing, and they have gone in this direction.

Their behavior is understandable. After all, it is a complex and laborious task to fathom the mentality of men who lived in earlier times. They faced circumstances and entertained ideas that were very different from those of the present day. It is difficult to comprehend this alien reality and to make it comprehensible to the modern reader. It is much easier to draw from the ready supply of contemporary notions and popular attitudes, and impose these upon the past. At once a remote world becomes familiar. The historian does not have to bother contriving theories, constructing arguments, or marshalling evidence. He need only repeat some current platitudes and cliches, and the response from his audience will be a nod of comfortable recognition and a murmur of automatic assent.

Laziness and ignorance are thus the operating forces behind most writers who repeat politically correct ideas and most readers who accept them. Although they are mistaken and misguided, they are not deaf to the voice of reason or blind to the presentation of facts, if only these succeed in coming to their attention. The same cannot be said of the hard-core politically correct. They have such a visceral attachment to their convictions that one could no more persuade them that they are in error than he might succeed in convincing fundamentalists that the Bible is not the literal word of God. Their discomfort with an essay such as this one must be distressing, to say the least. They are receptive only to something that confirms the doctrines of their faith. They want to be told that the British Arctic explorers were Eurocentric, ethnocentric, and racist, that they therefore held the natives in contempt and refused to learn from them, and that they paid for their arrogance and folly with failure and death. Instead, I have demonstrated that this view is utterly superficial and simply wrong.

— ♦ —

Since I should not like to be the purveyor of total disappointment, I shall conclude with an incident of obvious and undeniable racism from the history of Arctic exploration. The passions and actions involved are so vicious that I trust they will satisfy even the most ardent of the politically correct. Let them glut themselves with delicious horror and self-righteous moralizing over the barbarities committed.

In 1771, the explorer Samuel Hearne was traveling with a party of men near the Coppermine River when word arrived that an Eskimos encampment had been sighted in the vicinity. The news electrified Hearne's companions. At once they put aside personal rivalries and dissensions and began to work together with a single purpose. Individuals gladly loaned implements from their own gear to others for use in the coming enterprise.

Possessed by an intense spirit of fellowship and unanimity, they crept up on the Eskimo dwellings during the night, attacked without warning, and slaughtered the terrified and naked inhabitants—men, women, and children alike. Some were put to death with lingering tortures. After it was over, a joyous glee of successful achievement animated the perpetrators. When they caught sight of another group of Eskimos, cowering at a safe distance, they jeered at them by shouting in the Eskimo language the customary expression of friendly greeting.

With unconcealed horror, Hearne witnessed these actions, which he was powerless to stop. When he tried to prevent two men from killing a young woman, they mockingly asked if he wanted an Eskimo as a wife and proceeded with their butchery. Hearne was especially revolted at “the brutal manner” in which they treated the corpses of the Eskimos:

It would be indecent to describe it, particularly their curiosity in examining, and the remarks they made, on the formation of the women, which, they pretended to say, differed materially from that of their own.[ 13 ]

By now I have surely recounted enough to heat the indignation of the politically correct into seething fury. But the next sentence will cause it instantly to collapse and dissipate into awkward embarrassment. The persons guilty of the actions just described were not Europeans but Native Americans. Hearne was the sole white man accompanying a party of Indians. The massacre resulted, not from any specific grievance, but from the implacable hatred that Indians in general felt toward all Eskimos. Their intense animosity had no foundation other than the great differences in appearance and customs that existed between the two cultures. Evidently fear and loathing of the alien (or “the other,” if you wish) can motivate primitive as well as advanced peoples—a fortiore, in fact—just as vile prurience may characterize red as well as white men.

It seems that once again I have disappointed the politically correct. I have shown them the right crimes but the wrong perpetrators. They would be advised to look elsewhere than the Arctic for misdeeds of Westerners grievous enough to satisfy their perverse appetite. In fact, if they seek racism and ethnocentrism—not to mention sexism—they would have more luck searching outside rather than inside the modern Western world.

[ 1 ] “Babar the Racist.” New Republic (New York). Aug. 19 & 26, 1991. p. 14.

[ 2 ] Roland Huntford. Scott and Amundsen. New York, 1980.

[ 3 ] History Today. v. 20 (Oct. 1970). p. 686-694.

[ 4 ] William Scoresby. An Account of the Arctic Regions. Edinburgh, 1820. v. 1, p. 33. Cf. George Croly. May Fair. New edition. London, 1827. p. 115.

[ 5 ] Athenaeum (London). Jan. 11, 1845. p. 41.

[ 6 ] Richard J. Cyriax. “Arctic Sledge Travelling by Officers of the Royal Navy, 1819-49.” Mariner’s Mirror. v. 49 (1963) p. 130, 133.

[ 7 ] Athenaeum (London). Jan. 11, 1845. p. 41, col. 3; Feb. 1, 1845. p. 120.

[ 8 ] C. S. Mackinnon. “The British Man-Hauled Sledging Tradition.” The Franklin Era in Canadian Arctic History, 1845-1859. Edited by Patricia D. Sutherland. Ottawa, 1985.

[ 9 ] This subject is examined at length in: Charles Churchyard. National Lies: The Truth About American Values. Cambridge, MA, 2009. chs. 9-10.

[ 10 ] Alexander Simpson. The Life and Travels of Thomas Simpson. London, 1845. p. 258-59.

[ 11 ] One example among many: Gilbert Parker. Donovan Pasha. NY, 1902.

[ 12 ] Cf. Roland Huntford. Scott and Amundsen. New York, 1980. p. 126. The quotation from Sherard Osborn does not support Huntford’s position. Osborn was applauding the physical hardship of Arctic travel, not at all as an end in itself, but in behalf of a noble cause, the rescue of Franklin. There is a striking difference between the view of Clements Markham near the turn of the century that hauling sleds was ennobling toil (Huntford. p. 138) and the opinion of John Barrow about three-quarters of a century earlier that it was “a species of labor more fitted for convicts than seamen.” (Quarterly Review (London). v. 37 (Mar. 1828) p. 536).

[ 13 ] Samuel Hearne. A Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort.... London, 1795. p. 150.

Copyright © 2009 Charles Churchyard.

Email the author